Championship belts are typically synonymous with wrestling, boxing and mixed martial arts, but by the 19th century they were so ubiquitous that they were even issued for winning speed walking competitions
For nearly 20 years, I’ve credited Rasheed Wallace for popularizing championship belts in all sports and other situations that had nothing whatsoever to do with boxing, wrestling, or mixed martial arts.
In the beginning, of course, it was all fun and games. My beloved Detroit Pistons won their third NBA World Championship in 2004, and Wallace gifted the entire roster WWE World Heavyweight Championship belts, which they all donned to showcase the team’s championship rings.
The Pistons’ superfluous and conspicuous display of gold immediately landed on the radar of WWE’s top brass, who promptly aired portions of the Pistons’ ring presentation for their viewers on the next-ever issue of Monday night RAW. Throughout the 2004-2005 NBA season, Pistons fans proudly displayed replicas of the WWE title belt in the stands and urged opposing team fans to do the same.
Now, almost two decades after that night at the Palace of Auburn Hills in November 2004, championship belts are ubiquitous in all sports – legitimate and fancy – and are awarded to winners of everything from hot dog eating contests to quarterly corporate sales contests.
So was it really all the fault of the moodiest NBA power forward of his time? Not at all. In fact, there was no legitimate blame to place anywhere. Any resentment I might have felt stemmed from my own misunderstanding of how prevalent the presence of championship belts in non-combat sports was in the era when title belts originally gained prominence.
The golden age of championship belts
The first belt with a major championship award appears to have been built in England in 1841. In March of this year, a boxing promoter released a lengthy statement in The era London newspaper on why a belt made rational sense as an elite boxing prize.
“By the purity of reasoning we contend that a ‘belt’ which has girded the loins of the finest men of his day, Broughton, Slack, Big Ben and others, to this day, would have brought metal more attractively with the Champion of England than any other, however costly, that could now be fabricated: could we doubt it, it would mean challenging the essence of the heart in the right place – where it must be, tossing the hat to ‘merrie England’!” declared the promoter.
Basically, he argued that a girdle that had adorned the waists of every championship fighter in England after it had been won in combat would accumulate an intrinsic value exceeding the literal value of the metal that had create it. The belt, representing the English Heavyweight Championship, was awarded to fighter Ben Caunt two months later when he defeated Nick Ward.
The concept of a championship belt as a permanent, wearable trophy quickly caught the attention of representatives of other nations participating in organized boxing, and England’s writers seem to have experienced a mixture of delight and anger that Americans in particular had loaned it out. “We’re pleased that Caunt’s display of a transferrable champion belt has sparked a desire for imitation in the Yankees,” an uncredited author said in The era in September 1842. “It makes us proud that a trophy similar to that which we have proposed and erected on the mother country will henceforth be awarded to the ‘bravest of the brave’ across the Atlantic.
From there, championship belts made a logical leap to another martial art – wrestling. As an early example, the annual wrestling tournament in Cornwall and Devonshire in June 1848 awarded championship belts to first place finishers on either side of the 15 stone (210 lb) weight limit.
Championship belts enter the race
At this point, the development of championship belts in England took several surprising turns. In December 1851, The era reported on the creation of a championship belt to be awarded to the winner of the 10-mile walker – or champion racer – in London’s Islington. The pedestrian zone was so popular in England at the time that up to 20,000 people packed the stadiums to watch trained athletes battle it out head-to-toe for prize money.
The rules of the Islington race were as follows: ‘If [the winner] successfully maintains his championship title against all comers for a period of 12 months, [the championship belt] becomes his property; However, should he be defeated within that time, the belt of champion must be given to his luckier opponent.”
This is an essential point, as the championship belts were rightly also called “challenge belts”. At that time it was common for participants in different sports to send individual challenges to other established athletes in the press in order to arrange duels with them in the fight for dominance at specified times and dates. Case study: In the reporting of The era In an 1850 head-to-head race won by F. Beckwith, Champion of the Surrey Swimming School against W. Robinson, Champion of Oxford, it was stated that Beckwith had collected the following prizes during his water competitions that year : “A vase of wax flowers worth £10, the Champion’s Belt of the Surrey Swimming School, the gold medal of the Holborn Baths and the £10 of the above match.”
Championship belts hit the links
By the late 1850s, the championship belt had even made its way into golf. In October 1860 the Glasgow Herald reported that members of Prestwick Golf Club decided to award a ‘challenge belt’ to the winner of a tournament held among the top three golfers of all golf clubs in Scotland and England. “The belt is very pretty, it’s made of red saffiano leather, with silver plaques depicting players, clubs, etc.,” the newspaper reported.
This exquisite belt was captured by Willie Park Sr. and the golf tournament he won was soon renamed the Open Championship or British Open. Ten years later, under current rules, the belt was retired when young Tom Morris won the Open Championship for the third straight year. A new trophy therefore had to be commissioned for the British Open, with the legendary Claret Jug – awarded to the winner of the British Open to this day – making its debut in 1872.
We are the winners
So again, Rasheed Wallace not only didn’t commit a faux pas by introducing championship belts into basketball and then reintroducing them into every other form of competition under the sun, he was also responsible for a great act of recovery by winning several classic sports again with one of these linked their earliest and most traditional forms of awards.
With that bit of historical context, I can now easily excuse Wallace for the fact that championship belts are now a ubiquitous feature at sporting events, man caves, and corporate offices across the country. But leaving Robert Horry wide open on the wing during game five of the 2005 NBA Finals? That’s going to be a little harder to forgive — mostly because it helped cost the Pistons their championship belt.